Saturday, July 21, 2012

English Teaching in Japan: And Why It Hasn't Worked

I have almost a decade of teaching experience in Japan. Much of it is ESL teaching but also I have done work with a Hiroshima Prefectural Board of Education sponsored think-tank that focused on teaching methodologies to enhance English learning in Japan with the goal of English fluency, as well as worked as English Coordinator for the 3rd Annual Hiroshima English Language Camp, again, in Hiroshima, Japan. Now, I have migrated down to Kumamoto, on the southern island of Kyushu, to help spread valuable information about the correct way about teaching ESL to the Japanese. I'm not trying to be snooty, there is actually a correct, and natural, way to acquire English--otherwise there wouldn't be any English speakers.

What I have learned over the years is that the Japanese education system wants instant English ability, and so they have developed their entire English training curriculum around a "cram-and-exam" based learning system similar to how TOIEC and TOEFL are set up. But this is the wrong way around--as these tests are designed to test an already developed proficiency NOT inrease English retention and knowledge. In other words, the current Japanese model of English education expects its learners, who have never studied English before, to already be FLUENT in English! It's such a ridiculous expectation that it makes the English education system in Japan look terribly ridiculous. This embarrassment of Japan's failure to teach English properly and instill it into their students has created an erroneous mind-set which assumes that English is too difficult a language for the Japanese to learn.

This is total nonsense. English is one of the EASIEST languages in the world to acquire. It is what has allowed it to become the dominant language around the world--the ease at which it can be learned and applied, as well as adapted to suit the culture's specific needs. Latin, Greek, Arabic, French, and even Spanish have all been dominant languages in the world at one point or other, but none of them have succeeded because, unlike English, they are much more culturally specific. English is, as I like to say, a mutt language. A not so eloquent way of calling it a heterogeneous miscellany of assorted languages. It is a hodgepodge of other languages, which, interestingly enough, makes it pliable, and allows it to be both culturally diverse and extremely adaptable.

The English language is easy to simplify down to a simple set of loose grammar rules and phonics forms which, if properly learned, can allow one to become entirely proficient.

Japan has largely bypassed the only proved method of teaching non-native speakers English--i.e., PHONICS. It's how ALL native English speakers learn to recognize the sounds, develop an ear, and it is how we all learn to read and comprehend English words. The grammar comes later. English speakers, whether they recognize it or not, typically follow phonics based curriculum when they learn as children, which are the natural English language learning techniques codified.

I have found some great phonics programmes available to ESL learners which I'd like to share here.

The first is the Japanese based company MATSUKA Phonics Institution, MPI for short.

Japanese website:

English website:

I have used MPI for my main lessons at the Elementary school level--and it gets AMAZING results. Most of my JHS school graduates gain their basis for English proficiency from the phonics lessons we did at Elementary school. In Hiroshima, I had JHS students passing the Eikentei pre-1st and 2nd grade exams... whereas other schools are lucky to have anyone pass the 3rd grade exams let alone ace them.

Phonics works. Really. It does.

There is, however, something to be said of getting them while they are still young. The younger the more primed they are for acquiring a secondary language, as their ear has not fully hardened to their own language yet. Which, I find, stresses the importance of teaching phonics based programmes earlier rather than later. The earlier the better.

But the Japanese system is designed to omit phonics based learning by making an inflexible and overly crammed schedule which reduces English proficiency by using a 'cram-and-exam' style--short term memory based--teaching system. It is a joke. It also explains why most Japanese study eight or more years of OFFICIAL English yet retain nearly NONE of it. They lack the reading and recognition base that phonics provides. Without this base, their latter skills drop out once they forget the wrote memorization they drilled for endlessly in JHS and high school. If they have the phonics base well developed, by the time they get to JHS and high school they are only reinforcing and adding to the language architecture firmly established by the sturdy phonics base.

Another reliable phonics program is the Hong Kong based KizPhonics. Most of their materials are available online--for FREE. You can also purchase their workbooks and they have competitive prices.


Also, they have extremely in-depth guides which explain their phonics based programme and how exactly phonics works. It is a bit technical, but I have found it is necessary to relay this information to ALL of my schools, since here in Japan, NOBODY has heard of PHONICS, apparently.

I usually spend a month or so convincing my schools to switch over to phonics based programmes, and this involves TEACHING the ADULTS what PHONICS is exactly. So I have a whole PowerPoint demonstration designed to do just this.

Eikaiwa based programmes are supposed to be for those who already are proficient English speakers. You cannot start with eikaiwa teaching with non-English speakers and hope to get results, but this is exactly what the Japan system tries to do. It is no wonder that after decades of English learning Japan continuously ranks among the lowest and least English proficient nations. They simply teach English incorrectly, and this leads to poor English users and an overall embarrassingly poor English proficiency when compared to other nations which teach English as a second language.

NOW, here is my GRIPE. Every time I leave a school system in Japan for another school, even if it is in the same gun or prefecture, the previous school DROPS the phonics based programme I worked so hard to erect and immediately the children's English ability evaporates into thin air. Meanwhile, the schools revert back to teaching English incorrectly, and this often makes it impossible for the students to learn English properly in the future due to the fact that they have to unlearn the WRONG methods and learn the CORRECT methods--all over again. This is why English learning in Japan has failed so miserably over the years. About the only way to overcome this handicap is for the Japanese ESL students to study abroad--in and English speaking country.

That's my two cents. Take it for what it's worth.


Tristan Vick


Dan Moeller said...

I don't know if I agree that English is one of the easiest languages. In fact, the complicated phonics system (something like 26 vowel sounds compared to the Japanese 5) is one of the reasons teachers are so scared to hold on to your phonics system (they were never taught it themselves). And, in my opinion, the Japanese are naturally conservative when dealing with the fortitude of one's own job. Even though your phonics system worked and the teachers saw it work, they're quick to drop a method that they would be embarrassed to utilize without a native English speaker. I've seen teachers do this when I've shown up a few minutes late. Some get really nervous and revert back to katakana English (even though a few weeks prior I might have commented on how much that system was a piece of crap).

It's not the "schools" that are dropping the phonics (which I'm sure you'd agree), it's the teachers--and the problem with that is the schools don't try to control such a thing as phonics. As for the BOEs, they have a strange control system over schools which is handed down from the prefecture and past practices; just like the schools, they're not about to step out of their comfortable boundaries for some foreigner who (1) has no authority, (2) has no seniority, (3) is only contracted for a year at a time so may or may not be leaving the school soon (and may or may not "know" what the school really needs. I think those are the problems.

Tristan D. Vick said...


I don't think English is difficult but it's not easy either. It's an intermediate level language, but it can be simplified unlike, say, Arabic.

Any language is a challenge to learn. Japanese is rather difficult due to the fact that, although it has a simple phonics base with simple vowel consonant linking patterns, it has a ton of subtle grammar rules that cannot be bent.

For example, you can bend or break English rules, you can adapt and mold English to fit your culture or needs, but with Japanese--if you use it wrong then it doesn't work.

That makes Japanese totally rigid, inflexible, and not likely to ever be picked up by other cultures. It simply cannot be made to meld with other cultures in the way that English can.

That is what I think makes English the dominant world language, not that it's so easy that you can just learn it, but that it's easy to use and to adapt to your purposes once you do have a basic grasp of it.

Whereas I have an intermediate grasp of Japanese, it is still ridiculously hard.

Tristan D. Vick said...

As to you second point, I agree, it's largely the teachers who refuse to teach phonics when it is introduced, but it is also due to ignorance. Most the teachers I have spoken with have never even heard of it. But I sort of resent their lack of interest once I show that it works.

I mean, wow! After just a year they see their students go from... I don't get it blank stares to... being able to read and pronounce English words on their own! And then, I leave, and they're like... oh well, it's just not for us. We'll go back to the old way.

Maybe they are locked into some mandatory Educational mandate, but they don't have to teach phonics for the whole class--just five minutes a day. They can still stick their standardized curriculum and accomplish their goals, while actually, you know, teaching the students proper English.

Also, sometimes it is the school that drops the phonics programs once I leave. After all, I have to run it by the English teachers, the Principal, and the BOE before they even let me introduce the subject to the students. So once I leave, if the teacher drops the ball, then, to spin a metaphor, the rest should act as the short stop and outfield and pick up the teachers slack by picking the ball back up and getting back into the game.

Instead, they collectively stand by, as a team, and watch the ball roll on out into the outfield until it lurches to a stop. Then they just stare at it dumbfounded then turn around and ignore it as if it was never their.

Which is a weird way to go about winning a game. In this case, winning in terms of creating proficient English speakers, which as you know, their current system has never actually done.

So although it would be easy to blame the teachers for simply being slackers, I know their is enough blame to go around--and in my mind--everyone shares the blame for collectively failing to follow through with what they collectively started out to do.

Your final point it fine, except, I would point out that, while not all the foreigners coming over have specialized language training or may or may not be certified teachers, they are, however, qualified English speakers. My point is this, if you have had three decades of Native speakers informing you that you're not teaching their language write, or at least pointing out their is a problem, then it isn't the rotation of more Native speakers telling you the same that's to blame. That's actually helping to highlight the problem. A second, third, forth, opinion... ad naseaum, and you'd think that after thirty long years of hearing, "You're English teaching system doesn't fucking work!" that they'd get the point.

Apparently not.

I actually have no idea why not. It would seem it goes to your prior to points of how much the Japanese actually do devalue the opinion of the foreigner. We don't have authority, and no seniority, so our opinion--even if it is RIGHT--is still, well, so unimportant to the Japanese that, form their perspective, it looks downright wrong.

But from a rationale point of view, that's just bizarre to treat something strictly from a Japanese bias: I am Japanese, so anything that isn't Japanese won't be granted the same authority or seniority, and therefore, does not count. So I am vindicated in going about everything the WRONG WAY.

See, I don't get that.

cirbeck said...

fyi, "Do to these reasons", in terms of composition, is a phrase we are taught to avoid because it is rhetorically weak, and the spelling is "Due". You can delete this comment if you want, too. I am not trying to poke holes in your argument. Keep up the good work!

Tristan D. Vick said...

Thanks for the heads up!